The Remnant - November 19, 2012

“Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”                                                                                                                              Jeremiah 23:3

Being part of a remnant means being among those who have outlasted adversity and survived. Of course, being part of a remnant may well be arduous, almost always a little (or more than a little) dangerous, and without solice.

For myself, I am part of the world of the book, and yet I cannot help but think that I am among the remnant. Books have never been so popular and ubiquitous, but there is a gnawing in the gut that somehow books have become, like Hamlet’s read, mere “words, words, words.”

In 2005, in America alone, over 172,000 individual titles were produced. To put that in perspective, that means that a new title was published every three minutes 24/7 for the entire year. Amazing . . . until you learn that in 2011, that number rose to 2 million! That upped the production to one new title every 16 seconds, day and night, all year long. It also means that a new title was produced for every 155 people in the country, including children.

Please tell me who reads these books? Who writes these books? And if we’re so learned, why ain’t we smart?

Two of the greatest dystopias of the 20th century wove amazing plots around the very nature of words and books. In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s program was to control thought by controlling words, shortening the number of words and the meanings of words with each new edition of “Newspeak.” It ends without any real hope for the future.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (named for the amount of heat needed to burn paper), the powers sought to control thought by destroying the books themselves. Yet it ended with hope, when people would memorize the contents of a book so that they could recite it to others. The ideas lived on, while the book itself went up in smoke.

So while we are swimming in books, like Scrooge McDuck playing with all his coins, we have a majority of voters thinking that raising taxes in the slowest recovery in modern history, with real unemployment and underemployment at rates rivaling the Carter years and a first-time credit downgrade – that doing all this would help fix the economy and create more jobs.  At this rate, if we soon produce 5 million books a year, we’ll be as dumb as rocks.

I know a non sequitur when I hear it, even when I create it. After all, we publish what is surely the best logic text in English (Socratic Logic). But one might be forgiven for hoping that a plethora of books, even in down times, should add to the sum total of understanding. But it is clear, as we all should have learned at our mother’s knee or at least from a decent teacher, that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. And nowadays even knowledge has been largely supplanted by information, and information by data. 

I remember way back in my high-school days, people bragged about the public schools in Montgomery County, Md, where I went to school, saying it was the second-best school system in the country (the best was some county in Southern California, if you can believe that). I knew that this boast could not be true, unless Webster suddenly published a new meaning for “best.” I have a feeling that the current crop of students, despite being hailed as the world’s smartest and highest achieving, know the score as well as I did way back in those halcyon days. As Honest Abe said, you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. For the past several months, many of us have been concerned about the fooling all of the people some of the time, but I suppose, since this is a blog about publishing, that I should call us back to the first clause, the one about fooling some of the people all the time.

How is it possible to fool some of the people all the time in an Age of the Data Glut? Even the dopiest people can manipulate a video game. In fact, I suspect that most of the dopiest people manipulate video games. But can that ward off being a fool?

How, then, do we traverse the desert of data into the high plains of wisdom? One of the first distinctions one learns in Philosophy 101 is the difference between necessary and sufficient. With regard to wisdom, we might all have an idea about what is necessary but I doubt whether very many would gainsay to give a complete answer to what was sufficient.

Perhaps there are people whose DNA gives them a heads-up in being wise, though I doubt it. The smartest guy in the Old Testament, whose very name is synonymous with wisdom, when asked by God to name what he would have God give him, chose wisdom. Maybe it was because he asked for wisdom that he achieved it. Most of us would surely ask for more stuff, more pleasure, more time.

In general, though, we think of wisdom as something acquired, often over an entire lifetime, rather than inherited from parents. And in the West, we tend to think of wisdom as something that is communicable (certain Eastern traditions seem to lead you to think that the quieter you are, the more likely you will be judged wise).

So, if wisdom is shown to others and acquired within the wise through communication, it deals with words, and if the words are for more than the few around you, it means that the words must be written as well as spoken (please, Socrates, great and wise beyond my understanding, forgive me).

If this is the case, one might well be convinced that a rise in the number and popularity of books would be a symptom, or even cause, of the flowering of wisdom. It just ain’t so. Why it ain’t so is best left for another time.